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India in soccer World Cup! When?

Indian football lacks professionalism, Bhutia tells Rituraj Borkakoty. Is cricket cornering Indian football?

india Updated: May 11, 2006 15:42 IST

In the last two decades, India have failed to find their feet in football, a game that unites the world for a month in every four years.

No game is so simple, yet so beautiful. But tragically, the bulk of a billion people in this country can only drench their souls with emotion by rooting for either Brazil or Argentina during the World Cup.

If you ask Baichung Bhutia, the only Indian ever to have played in the professional league in England, he will tell you the reason behind this hopelessness.

"We have no infrastructures at all at the grassroots level," says the East Bengal striker and the two-time winner of Asian Player of the Week award.

"We have no system in this country to encourage young boys to play football. There is no professionalism," Bhutia opines.

Baichung himself came from nowhere. Born in a tiny village in Sikkim, his was a meteoric rise. But then you would always have that odd example of a player emerging despite the system.

In the most recent Fifa ranking, India are lying low at 117. Not that we don't have a history. Though India have never qualified for the soccer World Cup, but this is the same nation, which once reached the semifinals of the Olympics. That was in Melbourne 1956 when India became the first Asian team to reach the Olympic semifinals.

Four years later in Rome Olympics, India failed to move from the group stage, but played inspirational soccer to hold the mighty France 1-1 through a goal from the legendary PK Banerjee.

India's other finest football moments came in 1951 and 1962 Asian Games when they won the gold medal. But those were the days when footballers were household names in the country and Sailen Manna, Jarnail Singh, PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami rivaled the Merchants, Hazares, Lala Amarnaths, Pataudis for popularity.

India's last achievement of some note came in 1982 Delhi Asian Games when they reached the quarterfinals.

Since then the scene became gloomy and despite producing players of the caliber of IM Vijayan and Bhutia, India became one of the most anaemic nations in the weakest soccer continent in the world.

When the world is waiting with bated breath for the greatest sporting spectacle to get underway in Germany, one can't help but contemplate what if we were one of the 32 teams!

"If we really want to become a good football nation, we need to work at grass-root level, We need to open more and more academies with top facilities," observes Baichung.

Money is a problem. But then the African nations like Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, who have been impressed one and all in the World Cups, are not well off either.

"They have the advantage. They are physically strong. But I always believe that being physically strong is not everything in football. I think technically, our footballers are as good as anyone, at least in Asia.

"The Africans have one more advantage. Most of their players like Didier Drogba of Ivory Coast are born and brought up in Europe. So it helps them a long way in improving their football."

While talking to this scribe about the plight of his country in a game that rules his heart, Baichung Bhutia didn't raise his voice above a whisper.

Judging by the way the All India Football Federation runs football in this country, it is highly unlikely that we will ever own a strong national team. Maybe, we will always remain the game's romantics who become a Brazilian or an Argentine once in every four years!